Public speaking: how to go from abysmal to goodish

We all know how learning happens: you have to walk before you can run. You’ve got to be good before you can be great.

I’ve been to quite a few public speaking training sessions. All of them full of tips on how to be a great public speaker. Which is brilliant. But it’s also not. Because before you can be great you have to be good.

What about tips for those of us who aren’t even good?

speaking 2

I’ve also got a fair amount of less than good public speaking experiences to my name. But last week I finally gave my first goodish talk!

So today I’m going to share what I did to go from being an abysmal public speaker to giving an okay talk. None of the fancy stuff (“move your eyes around the room as if tracing a dodecahedron”) or the weird stuff (“imagine your audience naked”). Just stuff anyone can implement.

1) I Selected my audience

We can’t always choose our audiences. But to improve I’m looking for opportunities to practise. So I offered to give the recent talk, knowing the audience would be supportive.

2) I prepped my talk with bullet-debullet-rebullet treatment

For me, bullet pointing alone isn’t enough because I can’t turn them into full sentences on the spot when giving a talk. So instead I prepare like this:

  • BULLET: Bullet point my ideas
  • DEBULLET: Write out my full thoughts, which means I’ve had to turn the bullet points into fully articulated sentences
  • REBULLET: Rewrite my full thoughts as bullet points, knowing that I know the fully formed thoughts behind the bullets

3) I practised with the technology

Having a practice meant I knew how to set up, how long it would take, and I was confident about it.

4) I calmed down

After a hectic day, about an hour before my talk I changed gear and slowed down. My friend suggested getting a cup of tea, some fresh air and stretching. I did, and it helped.

5) I psyched up

The day before giving my talk I listened to an extract of Amy Cuddy’s TED talk “Your body language shapes who you are.” She says that standing in power poses before an event, like with your arms in a V shape, helps you psyche up. I tried it and I reckon it did help!

6) I started like a pro

Cuddy and many others articulate the mantra ‘fake it ’til you make it’. So I did what I could. I know that when people give talks they begin by asking if the people at the back can hear. So I made a point of doing that. Because I know it’s what good speakers do.

7) I prepared a cheat sheet

I had a 45 minute slot and reading my talk wasn’t an option. In a dream world I would have done it without notes. One day. However, I prepared a cheat sheet with my bullet points on, clearly spaced out and in big enough font that I could read it from the table. I also didn’t staple it so that I could simply slide the sheets away as I went through them. Something I noticed George Osborne do in his 2015 budget speech.

8) I made it a team effort

I got my audience involved by asking them to discuss amongst themselves some of the concepts I was talking about, then feedback to me. This worked really well because 1) it gave me a minute to breathe; 2) it kept them engaged; and 3) it was empowering for them because they realised they knew more than they thought.

Voilà, eight things you can do to help you improve!

In addition to all of the above, there are three more significant things that helped my talk to be goodish:

9) I knew what I was talking about

10) I really wanted to share the information

11) I let my personality come through

Finally, the reflective practitioner in me knows what I need to work on, so to take my public speaking from goodish to definitely good, next time I’m going to:

  • try to look at every individual in the room rather than the same few
  • have a better idea of timing as I had to rush at the end
  • drink water throughout the talk as by the end I was husky voiced
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